managing time: a lesson from Jo Ann Beard and The Boys of My Youth

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard's collection of autobiographical essays, remains, all these years post publication, one of the most remarkably inventive exemplars of creative nonfiction in our collective possession. Gifted, gutsy, astonishing, luminous, heartbreaking—all these words have been used to describe Beard's truth-inspired stories of growing up (read "Cousins") and tragedy (her famous "The Fourth State of Matter," which sears each time it's read). When I want to remind myself that it hasn't all already been done with language, I read Beard. I also read her to admire her gift for stopping and extending time.

Here is a paragraph that caught my eye as I was reading yesterday. It's a parade scene. Jo Ann and her cousin are young. One of Jo Ann's sisters simply can't wait any longer to toss her baton into the air.

Here is what Jo Ann tells us she sees:
For a long, gleaming moment it hangs there, a silver hyphen against the hot sky. Over the hectic heads of the children and the smooth blue-and-white blur of crepe-papered spokes and handlebar streamers, above the squinting smiles and upturned eyes, a silver baton rises miraculously, lingers for a moment against the sun, and then drops back down, into the waiting hand. ("Cousins")
Read it again. We are startled, first, by the surprise imagery—the silver hyphen, the hectic heads, the hot sky. We are startled into paying close attention, and time is suddenly ticking on a slow motion clock. Now Beard keeps our eyes on the ground—on the smooth blue-and-white blur of crepe-papered spokes and handlebar streamers—so that for a moment we lose track of the baton, must assume that it is rising still, that it is going up up up above our heads. Beard establishes the distance between earth and sky; she extends the distance. And now the sound of the passage shifts—the language cools and simplifies. The baton "drops back down, into the waiting hand" because magic, in its final moment, does not need exclamation marks. The baton takes its long way up, and then it is dropped and snapped and clutched—quick, decisive.

Lessons on time.


Susan Campbell said...

This is beautiful - Jo Ann Beard's writing and yours. I want to read this book.

Serena said...

wonderful example. I'll have to keep this in mind as I rewrite that novel that seems too rapid...and too much like a screenplay.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I read this book years ago, and it's one that has stuck with me. I still remember the fan at her relative's house, shredding the Kleenex ... and the maniac driver forcing her off the road.

Richard Gilbert said...

Great post about a wonderful memoir, one of the best.

Yesterday a friend who works in magazines sent me a link to "The Fourth State of Matter," gushing, not knowing I have read and taught it for years.

Neat thing, a college intern turned him onto it. So I feel like the students we teach have an impact in this way, bringing notice to Beard and we brought their notice to her.

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